first published on WIvoices.org
The St. Croix County Board will decide the fate of St. Croix Industries (SCI), a program for approximately 150 adults with disabilities in western Wisconsin, at the Aug 6, 2013 county board meeting. Due to State budget cuts, the St Croix Health and Human Services Board is recommending a resolution to the St Croix County Board that it take steps to transition SCI to a private provider.
Some fears about the closure of SCI or its transfer of ownership to a private provider include: the impact on clients if supervisors have their jobs or wages cut, the loss of control when a private entity assumes responsibility for a publicly run program, or the fear that the most vulnerable adult, disabled clients – including those with multiple disabilities and associated behaviors – may find themselves left behind.
We wanted to interview a local woman for a personal perspective that the public should consider in this policy debate. May Ross and her daughter, Jamie, spoke to us about Jamie’s work at SCI. Jamie is not only a client, but also deems SCI one of her favorite places and considers members of the staff her close friends.
Here are their stories:
***Note [ During this interview, May Ross refers to “workers” and “clients” at St. Croix Industries. “Workers/Staff” refers to SCI employees who are professionally trained and compensated in order to assist clients. “Clients” refers to the adult disabled who are also employed by and/or participate in other areas of the SCI program.]
Q. What is St. Croix Industries?
A. St. Croix Industries (SCI) is a program for disabled adults. They are mentally handicapped, could be mentally ill, they serve a variety of people with a variety of abilities and needs.
They also have a work program that they have a job and a job coach and they work in this community. The community is inclusive and they embrace people with disabilities.
SCI is very well run; the staff really knows what they are doing. In 2012, they were voted “Business of the year”. If you need a job done in the community, SCI is the place to go.
Also, if they are slow at work and don’t have enough in the summer sometimes, they take the clients into the community. They go bowling, on a picnic, to the movies. Those inclusive events are good for the community and the clients. They will give Jamie the environment that will help her do that.
The best thing about SCI is that the county has voted to take care of this population in St. Croix County, so they support their workers. They have longevity there. Some of the leaders of the workers have been there for forty years. So, they come and they stay. It is a very cohesive group. The staff knows each client’s history and behaviors, so they are skilled in adapting to each individual.
Q. What kinds of jobs does SCI complete for area businesses?
A. ….shrink wrapping, sorting, mailing…and all of this is done with supervision, so all of this is done correctly and on time. They also put parts together for different businesses. They’ve gotten letters from businesses that say, ‘we really appreciate what you’re doing for us, because you save us money and it is always done right and it is done on time.’
[Over 60 businesses currently use SCI to complete work projects for them. View the current list HERE].
Q. What is the fear among clients and their guardians about the potential transfer of SCI away from the county’s responsibility?
[Note: May's daughter, Jamie, has Down's Syndrome, is hearing and vision impaired, and has post-traumatic stress disorder from being abused in a group home setting prior to coming to SCI.]
A. If SCI is closed and because my daughter has multiple handicaps and behaviors, she may not be included [in a privately run institution], and she may be sitting home during the day. Her quality of life will be much less. She really counts on the programming, the behavioral control, and the ability to work. She loves to work! And that would be taken away from her. And her life would be going down the drain.
I’m just afraid that she will not be able to continue with the high quality of life that she has had here in St. Croix County.
Also, my daughter has been abused in the past, change is very scary for her and traumatic. So, it is going to be a huge thing if they [St. Croix County] don’t continue to support SCI and keep the same qualified workers.
Many of the clients have said SCI is like their family, and they are upset that there may be a huge change. You know, they can’t protect themselves. They can’t say, ‘please don’t take this away from me.’
Q. What will be the impact to the community if SCI isn’t able to continue in the current form?
A. I think what people don’t understand is that people who have greater needs will not probably be served in the same way. But there will still be costs involved to take care of those people. It’ll just be transferred to someone else.
Also, if the county doesn’t take care of SCI, the employees (staff) will be hired at a lower salary. I’m afraid that there will not be a lot of longevity, because people can’t afford to live on that low of salary. So, there will be a high turnover.
St. Croix County historically felt that St. Croix County takes care of its own. They take care of their vulnerable, their elderly, and their disabled. They want to be responsible. That is historically been how this county has felt. In fact, the county even changed the motto.
[Note: The motto of St. Croix County was "Service is our Business" until it was changed in 2010. ]
Now with it being privatized, they are saying we don’t want to be responsible anymore. They’ll sell it off and let private industry take care of it, so we don’t have to anymore. But that’s where you lose control. Who do you go to then if there is a problem?
You can’t go to your county board, because they won’t be responsible. Who hears us if they sell it? Right now you go to your county board and you say, ‘this is a problem – what can we do about this, because we want this to be good?’
And it is good right now – It’s great!… don’t fix it. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!
We’re losing something when you privatize.
I think the issue with privatization is strictly fiscal. There is a lot of money in St. Croix County. It is a wealthy county. But I think the issue of caring for people has been overlooked. I think that we have to get back to taking care of our needy. That’s what defines us as a society – how well we take care of our needy. That’s the bottom line, let’s keep that.
Q. Jamie, will you tell me about your job at St. Croix Industries?
[May helped interpret with both sign language and a common language the two women have developed. This conversation ensued.]
Jamie: I put labels…put in brown box.
May: What else do you do?
Jamie: Paper inside envelopes.
May: Do you like to work?
Jamie: Like to work.
May: Are you happy?
Jamie: Happy, like to work.
May: What do you get on Thursday?
Jamie: Thursday, paycheck, Mickey Mouse.
May: Yes, you get a paycheck and we put it in the bank.
Jamie: Bank, paycheck, Mickey Mouse.
May: You save it up so you can go on a long trip to see Mickey Mouse.
Q: Will you tell me about your friends at SCI?
Jamie: Barb, Colleen, Louie, Roger [Jamie named staff who she considers her closest friends at work.]
Q: What do you like to do on your time off?
Jamie: swim, bowling, walking, skiing, special Olympics
Q. What is your favorite thing about your job?
Jamie: envelopes, ride the bus
Q. Jamie, how would you feel if you didn’t have work?
May: What would you think if SCI closed?
May: Jamie, if SCI closed their doors and you couldn’t work—[interrupting her mother]
Jamie: “Don’t do that! Go to work. Open. Work. Don’t lock the doors.”
Jamie repeated “Don’t lock the doors” seven more times.
An important part of this policy debate must be the acknowledgement that all business is a risk. The question is what are we willing to risk? The clients of SCI and their guardians are reminding us that privatizing SCI does not risk a product…it risks people.
As May said, “That’s what defines us as a society – how well we take care of our needy. That’s the bottom line, let’s keep that.”
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